What Does a Sold Out iPhone 4 Say About China?

Apple (s aapl) has sold nearly 100,000 iPhone 4 handsets through China Unicom in the first four days of device sales, while 200,000 total phones were pre-ordered. With only half the advance orders fulfilled, supplies of Apple’s new smartphone are reportedly scarce in China, and the next round of inventory  is due to arrive by the end of this week, says ComputerWorld. By comparison, it took a full month before China Unicom sold 100,000 iPhone 3GS devices last year, indicating the iPhone 4 has a more appealing feature set and greater momentum in China.

As the most populous nation on the planet with 1.4 billion people, China is considered the next frontier of opportunity for the mobile phone industry, as well as many other markets. Although 200,000 pre-ordered handsets for the iPhone 4 debut sounds like a large number, it’s relatively small given that an estimated 10 million Chinese people are users of 3G data services. Essentially, Apple’s iPhone 4 is reaching just two percent of that audience.

Watching the overall smartphone market develop in China could be a pre-cursor  or proxy to the long-term success of companies like Nokia (s nok) and Samsung, however, as both companies sell tens — if not hundreds — of millions of feature phones in China. A reported 547 million handsets have sold in China this year, but only 10.6 million of these were smartphones. Nokia in particular is attempting to strengthen its smartphone portfolio with new handsets and a revamped operating system because it knows that future growth isn’t in the feature phone market.

To be sure, China’s adoption of smartphones is far behind that of the U.S., where it’s expected that half of all consumers will own a smartphone by the end of 2011, if not sooner. But early signs of China’s smartphone opportunity maturity are appearing. This past May, Research In Motion (s rimm) announced a deal with China Telecom to offer the BlackBerry Storm in 16 provinces, showing it wants a piece of the pie. Sony Ericsson (s sne) (s eric), Motorola (s mot), Lenovo and Dell (s dell) have all announced or began executing plans to bring Google Android (s goog) handsets to China as well, as each senses a gold mine of potential.

It will be interesting to watch the Chinese population move from feature phones to smartphones, and perhaps even more interesting to see which handset makers leverage the transition best. I’m not writing off any of the incumbents by any means, but their transition isn’t as guaranteed as one might think. Of course, for Apple, there’s no transition to be made as it doesn’t make a feature phone. It simply makes a smartphone that the Chinese are actually starting to buy in earnest.

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